By AVIVA WOOLF and JOSHUA AXELROD
WASHINGTON – There was a time when Walter Cronkite, the famous and influential CBS anchorman of the 1960s and 1970s, was touted as the “most trusted man in America.” His reports influenced everyone from the American public to presidents.
Today, according to an opinion poll from Reader’s Digest, the most trusted man in America is Tom Hanks. The closest news anchor: Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” at No. 12.
The hottest anchor going is not even real. Ron Burgundy – Will Ferrell’s legendary newsman from the film “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” – and his trademark mustache are everywhere you look. He has made appearances on live television news and is being featured prominently in his own exhibit at the Newseum in Washington.
Is the Anchorman museum exhibit confirmation that the halcyon days of the anchor are relics of the past, or is it a spark that could reignite interest in journalism? Do kids today dream of being the next Brian Williams or Megyn Kelly when they grow up?
Jonathan Thompson, manager of media relations at the Newseum, said he sees children and teens every day get excited to step up in front of the green screen and read a newscast at one of the museum’s interactive exhibits.
“Kids these days grew up in front of cameras,” Thompson said. “It’s on every cellphone that they own, so they seem to be naturally more comfortable with being in front of the lights. It’s something we see here all the time.”
One of the Newseum’s younger patrons, seventh-grader Ben Smith of Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, said he either wants to be a cop or a newsperson when he grows up.
“So I can be on TV. I want to be on TV,” Smith said.
Even as a junior high school student, Smith understands the rush of a scoop and the thrill of breaking a news story.
“I can tell people, like, if I only know about it and it’s not out yet,” Smith said. “If it’s a storm I can tell them about that and then everybody else would know about it.”
Smith has a long way to go before choosing a college major, but Olive Reid, associate dean at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said that enrollment in journalism is still alive and well.
“The numbers are smaller but it’s still competitive,” Reid said. “The intensity of interest is just as great if not greater than before. The interest is incredibly strong.”
The 2012 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Enrollments, published by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, reported that enrollment in journalism programs has declined for the second year in a row, but only marginally.
The 485 programs that participated in the survey reported 212,488 students enrolled in the fall of 2012 compared to the 218,751 students in 491 journalism and mass communications programs in 2011. However, this decline could be attributed to the smaller number of journalism programs participating in the survey.
Tim Bajkiewicz, head of electronic media for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and associate professor of broadcast journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the spring semester journalism classes are bigger than they’ve ever been.
“Broadcast news has done almost too good of a job making it look easy,” Bajkiewicz said. “To report news, to get interviews and then look together while talking about it on television takes a lot of skill and effort.”
There was a time when Will Ferrell himself wanted to be a journalist. As a sports information major at the University of Southern California, he was on the path to becoming a real anchorman.
“I was setting out to be a sportscaster and I got derailed with this comedy thing,” he said in early December to an audience at the Newseum.
Ferrell’s character is obviously a caricature of the over-inflated pompous anchorman, with his face on billboards, many leather-bound books and all the glamour of being a beloved and trusted anchor. Can the same be said about today’s journalists?
“The notion of the all-seeing, all-knowing anchor is dead,” said Dave Lucas, news anchor for NewsChannel 8 in Washington.
Lucas, whose parents worked in radio in the 1950s, went into “the family business” after graduating from the University of Nebraska and has anchored at NewsChannel 8 since its inception more than 20 years ago.
“I was a kid of the Watergate era,” Lucas said. “The idea of the crusading journalist was a cool thing.”
Today the “crusading journalist” ranks last out of 200 on a list of the best to worst jobs according to CareerCast.com, a career website. Factoring for physical demand, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook, reporter ranked lower than lumberjack, oil rig worker and maid. Broadcaster didn’t score that much better at 184, just above waiter/waitress.
Tom Fitzgerald, reporter at Fox 5 D.C., said that due to the influx of information and ideas available on the Internet, we need journalists today more than ever.
“That’s one of the biggest responsibilities that you have these days,” said Fitzgerald. “Making sure that really important news doesn’t get lost among the 25 pictures of adorable cats. We also need to have somebody who pushes the hard stories, pushes the difficult stories, pushes the uncomfortable stories, as well.”
The “Anchorman” sequel will be in theaters on December 18. Until then, Burgundy has been popping up at real local television stations, including one in Bismarck, N.D., where he co-hosted an entire news segment.
“I think he’s this lovable buffoon,” Ferrell said of his character. “I think audiences like watching this guy who thinks he’s an expert on everything. You can see the flicker behind his eye: ‘I hope these people believe what I’m saying.’ He’s very accessible.”
Ferrell jokingly said that he always knew that “Anchorman” would make its way to a museum.
“The Newseum has done an amazing job,” he said. “Even though I remember the day we wrapped ‘Anchorman,’ Adam (McKay, the film’s director) and I turned to each other and said, ‘One day this will be in a museum. This will be a teaching tool.’ We gathered the crew and said, ‘mark our words.’”
And what do real journalists think of Ron Burgundy?
“I love Anchorman and it’s hilarious,” said Bajkiewicz. “But one of the things a lot of students don’t understand is how tough it is.”